Carolina Panthers: Playing the AFC West

Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) celebrates with cornerback Aqib Talib (21) after beating the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 at Levi
Feb 7, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) celebrates with cornerback Aqib Talib (21) after beating the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl 50 at Levi /

The Carolina Panthers get to head out West a lot this year. Let’s start off looking at the AFC West and its two playoff teams from last year.

The Carolina Panthers have to play two full divisions each year. One comes from the NFC and one from the AFC. Sometimes that can work out unexpectedly well like when the AFC South and the NFC East both failed to live up to expectations. Sometimes it can go horribly wrong like it did two years ago when the Panthers got the AFC North and three playoff teams (Bengals, Steelers, and Ravens).

This year the Panthers have gotten the two West divisions. That is a collection of Kansas City, Denver, Oakland, San Diego, Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona, and Los Angeles. Of those eight teams, four were playoff bound last year. That obviously includes defending Super Bowl champion Denver. With that in mind let’s look at the AFC West first and NFC West tomorrow.

Let’s start things off in San Diego. The Chargers have been riding the Philip Rivers train for a while now but it has never gotten back to being the threat it was when LaDanian Tomlinson was hauling the mail. Rivers and top target Antonio Gates are now in the backside of their careers.

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The Chargers did bring back Ken Whisenhunt, who got the most out of the offense two years ago. The bigger questions are on the defensive side of the ball where the Chargers lost big safety Eric Weddle in free agency. The hope is that pick Joey Bosa will give them a boost on the defensive line while they rely on a decent linebacker corps of Manti Teo, Denzel Perryman, and Melvin Ingram among others.

For the Panthers, the Chargers’ 3-4 alignment will look familiar as it is similar to the Broncos just without the same pieces. The plan has to be centered around attacking the defensive line with the run game and getting blockers to the second level. Then the Panthers can test the secondary’s strength without Weddle.

The Raiders are not trying to milk the last few years of an older quarterback. They have Derek Carr and they are trying to figure out new ways to make him successful. Carr is only a second year and the Panthers defense should be more interested in pass rush when playing him.

The Raiders defense still lacks some punch, but it does have the second year of Khalil Mack and the free agent signing of former Seahawk Bruce Irvin to look forward to. Those two will have to be a big part in sort of pressure the Raiders might generate.

The Raiders were supposed to draft high for secondary help but didn’t. They signed safety Reggie Nelson as a free agent and will rely on NC State’s David Amerson as their best cornerback.

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The Kansas City Chiefs were the other playoff team out of this division last year. Andy Reid continued to get good results from a running game and not having Alex Smith screw it up. The Chiefs defense is still centered around long time vets Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson. They are sticking it out to see if Justin Houston and Eric Berry can take them over the top.

If all else fails, then there is always the leg of Dustin Colquitt.

Finally there are the Broncos. The Broncos are a condensed version of their Super Bowl roster. Their depth went and got paid elsewhere and their quarterback will either be Mark “The Winter Soldier” Sanchez or rookie Paxton Lynch. The biggest thing to note is that neither of those guys are Peyton Manning or Brock Osweiler.

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Finally the Broncos still have Aqib Talib, who didn’t do much to win friends in the Super Bowl. Obviously the Panthers have to be more concerned with the edge rushers that dominated the big game. That game comes first too.